Cecil County Council OKs Hornberger Budget, I95 Toll Study Dropped; Library, Pension Cuts Accepted– Soda, Anyone?

June 3, 2021


Call it the once-a-month soda budget: you’ll be able to treat yourself to an occasional large Coke at the drive-through under the slightly over a penny cut in property tax rates set in the new Fiscal 2022 budget proposed by County Executive Danielle Hornberger and approved by the Cecil County Council Tuesday night. (6/1/2021). But there won’t be COLAs of the financial sort for library employees and cuts to first responders pension fund contributions may have those dedicated professionals reaching for aspirin instead of a cold drink.

In her budget for the fiscal year that begins on 7/1/2021, Hornberger sets the property tax rate at $1.0279 or slightly over a penny. (about 0.0135-cents) decrease from the current Fiscal 2021 rate of $1.0414, per $100 of assessed property valuation.

So for a home assessed at a full value of $200,000, the property tax bill sent out this summer will be $26.94 less than last year’s annual bill. For a home with an assessed property value of $300,000, the new tax bill will yield a savings of $40.50—so add a mini-burger off the dollar menu to that monthly Coke. But for homeowners in the western area of the county whose properties were re-assessed this year by the state Department of Assessments and Taxation and received higher property value assessments, it may just be a free ice water at the drive through for you.
Although the new budget was approved unanimously by the County Council, it is hardly set in stone. Indeed, during discussions of the budget, multiple areas—from the Board of Elections, to schools, the health department and even the much-cut library system, there were vague promises from the Hornberger administration that many budget areas will be re-visited in the new fiscal year. But budget add-ons will have to be held to a higher standard of scrutiny, and proof, than many of the line items just presented to the Council.

During the two months that the County Council had to review the proposed budget, some pointed questions were asked, especially about spending in the capital budget– which is not counted in the calculation of the property tax rate that is the local political bellwether. But in the final discussions only one capital budget item was rejected by the Council– $500,000 in county funds to begin a study of relocating tolls on I-95 from the western area of the county to close to the Delaware line. The costs would escalate to over $2 million in county founds in future years.


For years, county leaders have urged removal or re-location of the Interstate 95 toll plaza in the western section of the county, which they view as an impediment to business and tourism development as motorists have to pay a hefty toll to enter the county from the other side of the Susquehanna River. But state and federal officials have rejected the idea of moving the tollbooths closer to the Delaware line because it would negatively impact revenues that pay for the long-term bonds used to construct and maintain the roadway. Even as the state moves toward all electronic device tolling, relocated toll devices closer to Delaware would still have a major impact on revenues.

Councilor Al Miller (R-3) offered an amendment to delete the I-95 study money from the county budget and led the questioning of the $500,000 costs, saying “I want proof” that the state was suddenly willing to consider the change- and come up with money to carry such a project through. No letters or documents indicating such a change of heart were presented to the Council.

Instead, County Attorney Lawrence Scott claimed in a council worksession that he had “a text” from a state transportation official indicating support. He was seated a few feet away from Council members and did not offer his phone for confirmation. Nor was there any confirmation presented a few hours later at the evening meeting at which the budget was being voted upon and councilors reiterated the demand for proof. “You don’t have it in writing,” Miller told Scott at the evening session.

“I need a letter,” said Council President Bob Meffley (R-1)

The Hornberger administration did not specify how it came up with the cost estimates for the study or whether it had a particular consultant in mind when it set the initial $500,000 cost figure.

Councilor Jackie Gregory (R-5), a close ally of Hornberger who campaigned with her on a ticket aligned with US Rep. Andy Harris (R-1), said that the Hornberger administration is “not dishonest” and “I’m inclined to believe that they’ve had those conversations.”

Scott responded that he had talked with Harris’ office and that the congressman was willing to help in the toll endeavor. (That came as news to county residents aware that Harris was the only member of the Maryland congressional delegation recently to refuse to submit any local transportation projects in his district for a list of needed aid under legislation being drafted in Congress.) Hornberger is a former part-time aide to Harris and now Gregory has taken over the slot as an aide to Harris.

The Council ultimately voted 3-2 to delete the I-95 study funds from the budget, with Gregory and Councilor George Patchell (R-4) voting against deletion while Miller, Meffley and Bill Coutz (R-2) voted to delete the money.


Hornberger’s budget would make a significant 5.7 percent cut, or $366,202 reduction, in operating funds for the library system just as it recently opened the new North East library facility, which will also house administrative offices moved from the Elkton library building.

Facing sustained pressure from citizens angered by the library budget cuts, Hornberger suddenly told library officials a week ago that she thought she could turn over an estimated $190,000 in extra funds to the libraries obtained from a new ‘estimate’ of additional cost savings on a county general obligation bond refinancing. But the reality of that proposal is very much up in the air, depending on bond market conditions at an unspecified time in the future, and the original spending cut Hornberger proposed is in the budget approved by the Council.

[SEE previous Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2021/05/smoke-and-snooker-promises-and-placeholders-will-the-real-cecil-county-budget-please-stand-up/ ]


Councilor Al Miller (R-3) questioned reduced pension contributions in the new budget for Sheriff’s deputies, citing an unexplained significant cut in the “public safety pension plan”– a 17.3 percent reduction in the “monthly and lump sum” pension costs in Fiscal 2022 and a $496,352 reduction from the current Fiscal 2021 budget. . That is even before current collective bargaining negotiations are concluded, and pensions are usually an issue in those negotiations. Miller did not get a clear answer, only the suggestion that pension allocations are variable.

Another pension cut came in the reduction of $250,000 for the retirement program for volunteer firefighters. (During the administration of former County Executive Alan McCarthy, the county moved to fully fund, as a dedicated pension fund, the Volunteer Length of Service Award Program (VLSAP) instead of treating it as an annual appropriation that could be cut by a future County Council or Executive. The shift to a funded pension program was designed as a way to give volunteer firefighters assurance of future retirement income, especially for those injured in the line of duty,)

The County Council does not have the authority to increase funds for line items in the budget so Hornberger’s pension funding reductions remained in the final budget adopted by the Council.
In the new proposed budget, Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) will receive the staggering sum of $1—yes, that’s one dollar—above the $86,367,865 provided in the current Fiscal 2021 budget year. And that increase was necessary because state rule changes due to the pandemic required the county to exceed its overall contributions from the previous budget year despite declining student enrollment figures.

Hornberger thanked the council for approving her budget, mostly intact, in a written statement issued on Thursday 6/3/2021: “Please know that this budget is just the first step in our mission of setting Cecil on a low tax path of economic growth and fiscal responsibility.”

Soda, anyone?

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